Monthly Archives: February 2011

Eightfold Path: Spacious Concentration

I am teaching the Eightfold Path in a slightly different order than is traditional*, because two years ago when we explored these concepts, I created the analogy of the cooking pot to view the whole set of eight aspects as a helpful way to remember how these aspects work together. So this time, with a slight refinement in the analogy, we are working in the order that makes sense for building upon that analogy. We started with the ‘pot’ itself. Imagine the Buddhist bell bowl that I ring at the end of meditation and that graces the masthead of my blog. The ‘pot’ holding the world in an open embrace, cupped, and that well represents Spacious View.

Once we have the pot, we need a few other things to start ‘cooking.’ We need to have on hand — readily available in any moment — the match to ignite the flame of our practice and that is Spacious Intention. We need the underlying logs, the fuel that keeps the flame burning, and this is Spacious Effort, the crossed logs representing the balanced effort required to support our practice and Spacious View. Too little effort and the fire goes out, too much and all is consumed in flame. Spacious Concentration is the spoon with which we stir our consciousness, creating a vortex of clarity and focus. The consciousness inside the pot may at first be murky, like when you add sugar to water and it turns opaque. But over the flame of Spacious Effort and with the focused stirring of Spacious Concentration, the murkiness disappears and consciousness becomes clear. The result is Spacious Mindfulness. As it continues to heat, held in Spacious View, fueled by Spacious Effort, sparked by Spacious Intention, and stirred by Spacious Concentration, a naturally occurring steam rises out of mindfulness in the form of Spacious Action, Spacious Speech and Spacious Livelihood, going out to interact with the world.

I like to teach the three steams last, because only when we get some clarity and awareness can we begin to notice for ourselves where we are unskillful in action, speech and livelihood. If we go there first, we can get stuck in self-righteousness, feeling we know how to be good, we’ve got this down; or we can feel scalded by what we perceive as scolding and get defensive. If we are told by a teacher that our actions, words and ways of earning a living are unskillful, without developing the clarity to see this for ourselves, we will most likely stir up a murkier, less conscious stew out of our lives, receiving the teachings as judgments, accusations that either anger us or leave us in despair. Coming from a Judeo-Christian background, as the majority of us do, these three areas can easily be taken as just another set of commandments, which would be a total misrepresentation of the Eightfold Path and its purpose.

So, Spacious Concentration. It sounds like an oxymoron. That’s good! Oxymorons attract the mind, like a puzzle to play with. Zen koans seem to be oxymorons of a sort. With each new aspect of the Eightfold Path, I spend a week of investigation with replacing ‘right’ or ‘wise’ with the word ‘spacious’ and it continues to be a rich exploration. Sometimes spacious seems quite natural, like Spacious View. But concentration seems perhaps the least likely to make any sense.

The word ‘concentrate’ may bring up associations that cause tension. Concentration seems to be about struggling to think really, really hard, with our brain laser focused on some problem.

But in fact the traditional teachings of concentration practices, called the jhanas, were developed by the Buddha to help us create the space for a spontaneous experience, like the one he remembered having as a child. Perhaps you remember a spontaneous experience in your life of sensing a state of open awareness, a unitive state, a state of loving kindness, a state of being known as vital and valued even while being as miniscule as a drop of dew on a rose petal?

This spontaneous awakening into bliss is not unusual. I’ve shared some of my early experiences of these ‘brief relief’ respites from the illusion of isolation. I imagine that many people who meditate are those who, whether they remember it or not, have had such experiences and, like the Buddha, believe they can experience it again and perhaps sustain that clarity.

Here’s the Buddha’s story: The young boy Siddhartha was sitting under a tree, observing his father doing a ceremony when he found himself in a state that was both pleasurable and powerful. Powerful enough that he remembered it many years later, when he abandoned the ascetic path after six years of self-imposed deprivation, pain and difficulty. He had been phenomenally skilled at all the ascetic exercises he undertook, but knew in his heart that something was missing. We can imagine him thinking “It shouldn’t have to be this hard,” and then remembering that naturally-occurring childhood state while sitting under a tree. He decided to see if he could replicate that simple experience. So he went and sat under a tree, what we now call the Bodhi tree or tree of awakening because he set his intention to sit there until he awakened. And he did, and the rest is Buddhist history.

The jhanas are specific instructions he developed for the cultivation of what I think could fairly be called a state of ‘unitive’ awareness during meditation. We have not been formally practicing jhanas, but what we do as our meditation is very much akin to it. First develop the ability to stay present with the breath, then expand that awareness so that the breath is just a part of the experience. The jhanas cultivate the ability to let go into a state that is beyond labels or words but is not lost in a fog of unconsciousness or dreamy. It may be experienced as light or many other ways, and the experience is both pleasurable and powerful enough to make a significant long term impact. As meditators we have no expectation of experiencing such a state in any given meditation. Instead we are cultivating the spaciousness of mind to receive such a state, and, at the same time, creating spaciousness in our lives, whether we ever experience bliss or not.

Many Buddhist practitioners are concerned about getting attached to bliss states. This is probably why traditionally the aspect of concentration is taught last, and the jhanas are reserved for more advanced students, as they could be so easily misunderstood as escape routes. Without a grounding in fundamental Buddhist concepts and substantial practice in mediation, a person could think of the bliss state as a goal to be pursued, akin to drugged states that allow them to forget about their lives. Our intention through meditation is not to escape challenges and responsibilities, but to transform our relationship to them, to rest in spacious compassion and clarity that allows us to be fully present with whatever arises in our lives. Our intention is to be responsive rather than reactive, skillful in our speech and actions, to be conduits of loving kindness rather than purveyors of misery.

The ongoing practice of Spacious Concentration can fundamentally alter the brain so that we can perceive the inner workings of the mind and have fruitful insights, which we will discuss more when we explore Spacious Mindfulness.

Spacious Concentration is the practice of staying fully present, refining that focus to a fine point of stillness in the here and now and letting go of all else.

The word ‘spacious’ that at first seemed to create an oxymoron when linked with the word concentration, now clearly has an important role. The very word ‘spacious’ helps to release tension in our bodies, in our minds, giving us room to let go.

Developing Spacious Concentration begins with relaxation. A little metta (loving kindness) practice is very helpful to soften the tension that can build up around the prospect of concentrating. “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be at peace.” When we really feel ourselves bathed in the infinite loving kindness, this unconditional sense of good will, our muscles and minds relax quite naturally.

In Vipassana (insight) meditation we focus on the rising and falling of our breath. But if we like, we can experiment with objects of focus from other traditions: a candle flame, a shell, a flower or a mantra, allowing ourselves to become fully absorbed in the experience.

There are two kinds of concentration: deep absorption and open field awareness. We practice both regularly in class. Alternating between the two, giving each sufficient time to be fully felt, is a skillful way to develop Spacious Concentration. If you think about our cooking pot analogy with Spacious Concentration as the spoon with which we stir consciousness as it simmers and transforms into mindfulness, you know that there are times when you need to stir constantly, like when making risotto, and other times when you can stir and then rest from stirring, but you never lose awareness that you have a pot on the stove.

In class we did more intensive concentration practices instead of discussion. I encourage you to do the same on your own. Also you might want to revisit the previous post on Right Concentration.

*Traditionally teaching starts with the panna or wisdom practices of Right View and Right Intention, which we did. But then tradition takes us to the Virtue Practices called sila, which are Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, perhaps because these practices could be undertaken even without a meditation practice. Then the samadhi or concentration practices of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are taught. But again the Eightfold Path is circular, the petals of a lotus opening, so any place we start is just fine.

Eightfold Path: Spacious Effort

Imagine a bird soaring in the sky, held aloft by the air currents. Spacious effort is like that. Out of a sense of connection with all that is, we are held aloft, so that we are not alone and solely responsible to carry the weight of the world upon our shoulders or push a boulder uphill over and over like Sisyphus. We can instead be like sailors who know the tides and the ways of the winds, and with a slight shift of the rudder and choice of sails, align with the already existing energy of the universe to do whatever needs to be done.

How does this play out on dry land? Through the Spacious Intention to be present, to sense in to the energy of the universe as it courses through our own bodies, we can come into Spacious View, seeing the interconnection, feeling the support of that vibrant web of life.

Although this would not be the traditional way of explaining right or wise effort*, and actually seems more akin to the Taoist term Wu Wei**, it still feels accurate to me to describe Spacious Effort as aligning with and feeling supported by the infinite energy of which we are made and that breathes through us. From this sense of connection and support, our effort will be fruitful, sincere and well-received.

But how often does that happen? For most of us accessing and riding the infinite energy of the universe seems like a fantasy. The world we live in is full of challenges, difficulties and obstacles to be overcome, and it certainly seems that none of it will happen without serious effort on our part. Even as I say this I can feel the locking down of my muscles, the clamping of my jaw, the clenching of my heart and the overloading of my brain. It’s true, I cry, it’s true. Life is hard and I sometimes have a hard time coping.

Life is a challenge! Any given life at any given time has a set of responsibilities that can be daunting to contemplate. Perhaps we really do feel as if we are carrying the world on our shoulders up a steep incline with no summit in sight. Or maybe we feel like a waiter with too many plates to carry and too many hungry diners making excessive demands. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, wouldn’t it be great to have a sailboat to ‘align with the universe! Wouldn’t that be just dandy! But that’s not how life is. Give me a break.”

Okay, okay. Reality check! But here’s the reality: Most of what we are dealing with on a daily basis is not reality, but perception.

Whatever seems true in our lives right now is a mirage, as much a lie as what we see when we look in the mirror. Think about it: What we see in the mirror is flipped horizontally, only the front of our body, probably cropped, fixed in an unusual stationary moment, and distorted by our filters of selective perception. That false mirror distortion of our body actually mirrors how it is in our lives as well.

Think about your own to-do list. Think about the people who depend on you. Think about your fears of what will happen if you don’t fulfill your obligations. Bring everything to mind, everything you can think of.

Now sense in to your body. Notice any tension that may have escalated just that quickly. Feel the clamping down. This is the adrenaline of fear coursing through us. Most of us live in this constant bath of adrenaline, putting strain on our bodies and minds.

Now focus on your breath. Breathe in the generous infinite air that surrounds us. Allow the breath to ease the tightness of muscles, soften the heart and open the mind. Allow yourself to be held in this spacious presence of sensing in.

Sensing in, we relax. Sensing in, we become aware of what is true in this present moment. Sensing in we find reality, beyond the mirage of our perceptions.

When we access the moment, we bring ourselves into alignment with the ever present infinite energy that is a simple factual scientific truth, not something requiring belief. There is nothing woo-woo about it, as we discussed when studying Spacious View.

(I admit I am finding that this word ‘spacious’ does seem to have some quasi-magical incantation quality. I find saying to myself ‘spacious mind, spacious heart, spacious life’ gives me access to a calm centered place where I can remember that I am just one of six billion people on the planet and it’s not all up to me. I have had feedback from some of you that the word spacious has the same effect on you!)

Whatever challenge we are facing, being grounded in spacious awareness allows us to meet the challenge. There is a quality of release and letting go in spaciousness. For those of us who find we are tense and determined to accomplish goals, to get something right, to become the best we can be, we can begin to question the value of our exertions. ‘What is it I hope to accomplish? Are my efforts effective? If I feel tense, is my tension serving me or sabotaging me? When have I exerted effort and felt joy in the exertion?’

Let’s play a little with this last question. Perhaps you remember a physical activity like swimming where the pure pleasure of the strokes and the sensation of the water against your skin brought you more fully into the moment, and you felt alive, awake and joyful. This was an experience of Spacious Effort. Sensing in, you felt the joy of using your muscles, and hopefully, sensing in you knew when your body was ready to stop, and you did, rather than forcing some over-efforting thought control onto what was a joyous and healthy experience. Studies now show that forcing ourselves to do exercise that we don’t enjoy actually adds so much stress that it negates any health benefit.

Connecting to the isness of being is plugging into creative energy as well. I remember when I used to write advertising copy, whenever a co-worker and I brainstormed together and laughed until our jaws ached in the creative process, the resulting ads were the best work either of us every did. Quality results arise from joy and a unitive state of ease! A worker in a factory who stays fully present in the moment and honors the work being done as almost a ritual and a gift offered in joy will also produce a finer product than a worker who is tensed, afraid of making a mistake, or sluggish, grumpy or daydreaming, potentially causing harm to the product, themselves and others. We’ll discuss that more when we get to Spacious Livelihood, but you can see the nature of Spacious Effort in these two work examples.

Unskillful effort comes from not being fully here and in this moment. With over-efforting, mostly likely we have a goal, an expectation or a desire that keeps us feeling locked out of the moment, stuck in some future moment of triumph, accomplishment or relief. How often do we keep ourselves slogging away with mental visions of a hot shower, a cool drink or a cozy bed? We are avoiding being present because of discomfort, when it would be more skillful to honor the moment, pay attention to our bodies’ cues, take a break from the activity, have a sip of water, a change of pace, and sense in to the sensations of the moment before proceeding. Slogging away is a sure way to end up falling down on a hike or making errors in our work. Spacious Effort honors the body’s cues and responds with compassion.

With under-efforting, we have some inner conversation that is making such a convincing argument that we can’t seem to get off the couch to do what needs to be done. Spacious Effort brings us into the moment, into noticing the inner conversation and compassionately working with the inner messages we hear.

Before we start really listening we might think of our thoughts as a monolog, as ‘our’ thoughts, an expression of our true selves. But when we begin to listen more closely with spaciousness and compassion, we begin to see that it’s not a monolog but a dialog. There’s the voice that says ‘I want….” and another voice that questions the veracity of that statement. The more we pay attention, the more voices we begin to notice, until we see that our thoughts are more of a symphony of various component parts. Now this is not a case of split personality. It’s just the nature of thought. Thoughts are drawn from all over the place throughout the course of our lives. When we meditate and give ourselves space to explore, we can begin to see the source of some of our thoughts. Maybe we believe something about ourselves because someone in high school said something hurtful. We incorporated it into our thinking and haven’t bothered to question it since. Giving our minds space, and noticing, we can see the associative images and memories that fuel these thoughts. Once we see them, sometimes they simply vanish because the source revealed is so obviously unreliable we can no longer believe it. But most often this noticing is just the beginning of a very sweet process of inner exploration.

An effective way of working with all these messages is to begin to notice their variations of voice and tone, and begin to assign them pet names that have something of the nature of their general message, so that we recognize them more easily when the message arises in our minds. In this way we can say, ‘Ah, yes, I know you,’ just as the Buddha recognized Mara in all its guises as he sat under the Bodhi tree.

Here’s an example: Many years ago when I had a problem getting myself to exert some effort to exercise, I noticed the inner aspect of myself that hated exercise and loved bed and, once identified, I gave it the pet name ‘Slug’ to help me notice when those kinds of thoughts arose, and to give me a way to address this aspect in an inner dialog.

Slug told me that he loved bed because it was like a big mommy hug, and he missed his mommy. This was in the early 1990’s. My mother had died in 1989 and I had not taken sufficient time to honor her passing and to honor my grief.

Being compassionate toward an inner aspect, it is possible to negotiate a way to meet its needs without sabotaging my own. Because Slug missed his mommy, I decided it might work to attend the yoga class of a friend who was the same age as my mother and who at the end of class when we would lie on the floor in shavasana (corpse) pose, would come around with blankets and lovingly tuck each of us in. Well, needless to say Slug was in heaven with this motherly treatment, and I could begin to rediscover the joy of stretching and moving my body. Eventually I was able to add other forms of exercise without Slug complaining.

You can see how the Spacious Intention that we discussed last week is so important here. The intention to be present allows us to be aware of thoughts that push too hard or sabotage our efforts. Our intention to be compassionate enables us to explore in a loving way the roots of our over or under efforting.

We can notice if we are tense, frantic, frenzied, or sluggish, lethargic, exhausted. Spacious Effort will feel calm, balanced, infused with an enthusiasm that is whole- hearted and centered. We will feel both at ease and alert.

We can notice what is sabotaging our ability to exert Spacious Effort. Noticing the quality of our effort gives us valuable information as to how we feel about the project at hand and how we feel about ourselves. If we are trying too hard, who are we trying to please? What goal are we trying to reach? Why is it so important to us? If we are feeling sluggish and resistant, what is it that we are resisting? What aspect of self is telling a story here? And what is the story being told? There are many questions that can lead to rich exploration. But we can only begin the journey if we first notice what’s happening.

Over-efforting often has to do with people pleasing which has to do with seeing ourselves as the objects of others’ views rather than the subject of our own lives. I talk about this a lot in my book ‘Tapping the Wisdom Within.’ It is not something that I have ever heard addressed in my years as a student of Buddhism. I think it might be more of (though not exclusively) a ‘girl thing.’ The Buddha probably didn’t have this issue so didn’t think to address it. But it is epidemic among girls and women in our culture. Think about how we are objectified, how important our packaging is and how effectively advertisers work our fear of not being the most desirable object. We get stuck trying to be what we imagine others want us to be, whether it’s pretty, smart, funny, efficient, capable, etc. We imagine that if we are not all these things we will not be lovable and we will be alone.

Our fear of separation drives us out of balance. We have no center. And when we have no center we can’t connect with others because we’re not where they expect us to be. They try to get to know us, but we are too busy trying to figure out what would make them like us to let them in! We are imagining how they see us and making constant adjustments.

I certainly had this object-orientation for the first forty or so years of my life. It wasn’t until I was flat on my back with a nine-month illness that I was able to quiet down enough to see what was happening. I spent that nine months meditating and taking notes on the insights that arose. The subject versus object issue was high on the list of topics of concern. And over that time I began to get to know myself, my own preferences, my own opinions, my own feelings. It was fascinating to discover them, to discover myself without the until-then all-important feedback of others.

The over-efforting that was a part of my having seen myself as object rather than subject of my own life led to my illness. It is very stressful to always be trying to figure out what others want from you and how to please them! So part of my healing was coming back to center, coming back to acknowledging that the only person I can be is me, even if everyone dumps me. But what happened was quite the opposite. When I was well enough to socialize, my simply being myself instead of the person I thought people wanted me to be actually improved all my relationships. I was who I was and they could find me where they expected to find me and understand me in a way that they couldn’t before, back when I was a shape-shifting blob of desire to please them.

So over-efforting and under-efforting are clearly unskillful, landing us in states that are even more unpleasant than the one we are trying to escape through under-efforting or over-efforting!

What do you notice for yourself about effort? What stories drive you or keep you from bothering? Take on this valuable exploration, a gift of the Eightfold Path. In the coming weeks notice where you over-effort and where you under-effort. Notice it in the areas of work, relationships, food and exercise, or any place else. Begin to notice the thoughts that are the source of what drives you or undermines you. This is the beginning of coming into clarity, balance and Spacious Effort.

To read more about this subject, check out the post on Right Effort from our first go round exploring the Eightfold Path in 2009.


* ‘avoiding unhealthy mind states, abandoning unhealthy mind states once they have arisen, moving the mind to healthy mind states, and maintaining the mind on healthy mind states that have already arisen.’

Now I imagine that the majority of the Buddha’s students were younger men, and I understand that getting a guy to stop thinking about sex would be a huge challenge. Also with all that testosterone, perhaps the challenge is also to stop fantasizing about acting out anger through violence. But my students are mostly mature women. For most of us this is not our challenge. We have other challenges, which I address in a way that feels more useful to me. If of course, any of you do have runaway thoughts of sex and violence, then that is what you will be noticing and questioning.

The Buddha always encouraged questioning the veracity of any statement. I don’t question that inclining the mind toward healthy states is useful, but I believe most of my students have been attempting to focus on healthy mind states most of their lives and don’t need my reminder to do so. The duality of healthy vs. unhealthy thoughts seems more likely to keep us in the ongoing inner battle rather than shifting our focus to the spacious interconnection that has room for it all, even the errant negative thoughts that are clues that are more useful being respectfully questioned rather than suppressed.

** Wu wei is the ‘action of non-action,’ when our actions are in alignment with the ebb and flow of the cycles of the natural world.

Eightfold Path: Spacious Intention

In our last exploration of the Eightfold Path two years ago, I said that Right or Wise Intention is the way we keep our spacious view from becoming spacey. But can there be such a thing as spacious intention?

Intention clarifies, takes us out of the fog or miasma of our amorphous thoughts and emotions and adds a sense of precision and presence. But does something need to be solid to be clear? No! Think of air, think of a clear pool of water. Spaciousness allows us to have clarity without rigidity. So Spacious Intention is possible because intention is the clarity of purpose that arises out of spaciousness.

To review, our intentions, wise, right or spacious, are three-fold:
• to develop a regular practice of meditation
• to stay in the present moment
• to be compassionate to ourselves and others.

If this is new information for you, I recommend rereading the post from January 2009 about Right Intention. When we talk about spacious intention, we are looking to see how spaciousness might enhance each of these intentions.

The intention to set a regular practice
The first thing we need in order to establish a practice is to claim some space in our often busy day. For some people this seems impossible. Where would they find the time? A sense of spaciousness allows us to see the day differently. We can see space between activities perhaps. With Spacious View we can look at our day and see the times when we are sensing our interconnection, expanding that sense of presence and compassion. We can see the times we are not spacious but spacey, either in repetitive circular thinking patterns that become mindless and exhausting or in succumbing to mind-numbing activities that we think of as restful, like surfing the internet, watching television, playing video games, going shopping without needing anything, etc. When we get into Spacious Action, we’ll look at these kinds of activities more closely, but for now, let’s accept that most of us have some form or another of escapist activity that doesn’t serve us very well.

Many of the things we do to ‘give ourselves a break’ are misguided attempts to connect with Spacious View. When we can see this is true, we can replace at least some of the activities with a regular practice of meditation for twenty, thirty or forty minutes a day. Even ten minutes to start will make room for the possibility of developing Spacious View. (Read more about setting up a meditation practice.)

The intention to be present
Setting the intention to be present is setting the intention to anchor our awareness in our senses, the ground of the present moment out of which the infinite field of awareness is able to keep expanding to hold whatever arises in our experience. Notice that we talk about the senses, not about the body, because the image that we hold about the body is usually finite, bounded in our skin. In truth, the body’s edges are much less defined than we imagine, as the skin is a permeable collection of cells and pores, and the breath that enters our bodies and is then released blurs the boundaries as well. But, for the purposes of navigating around in the world, we have developed a strong awareness of edges and have made them more ‘real’ than is useful for purposes of our intention to be present. For this purpose, we are better off sensing, noticing what arises in the vast field of our awareness that is free of boundaries. This field is full of energy waves that our senses perceive as sound, light, felt sensation, taste and odor. We set the intention to notice without naming, without forcing the edges onto the sound that we recognize as the chirp of a bird, for example. By letting go of the naming, we can also let go of judging. If judgment arises, we notice it, but it too is simply an amorphous arising wave of thought that is simply passing through our awareness.

Being present and noticing in this way is a practice. Part of what we might notice are feelings of frustration caused by our expectation that a lifetime of not being present will suddenly evaporate simply because we want it to. Our expectations, our wanting, and our frustration are all part of the experience, all to be noticed and given spaciousness. And because we are prone to experience such frustration and harsh judgment of ourselves, our third intention is to be compassionate.

The intention to be compassionate
Lack of compassion arises out of fear and a sense of separation. All the harsh judgments that live inside us – judgments of ourselves, family, friends, public figures, and the way of the world – come from a tight state of anxiety and defensiveness, what has been called a vestigial fear ingrained in us since the days when we had many predators and few skillful defenses. I read somewhere that after we had discovered fire, invented spears and developed a strong sense of community to defend against and ultimately decimate species that preyed upon us, that vestigial fear still remained. Once we were safe from predators, we needed to pin that fear on something, so we began seeing differences among ourselves, naming ‘other,’ defining boundaries and creating war.

Now our ability to make boundaries and see differences has become such a highly developed skill that we feel totally separate, even from our closest kin. We encourage individualism and celebrate our uniqueness, but at the same time we have, out of fear, created absolute isolation! We have dysfunctional community relations because what we think we want from each other – admiration, recognition of specialness, etc. – is not what we need from each other: a sense of connection. That feeling of isolation can cause all manner of fear-based acts of aggression. Then the fear seems reasonable, as we feel we must protect ourselves from those who, out of fear, perpetrate these acts.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all could notice the fear as it arises and have skillful means to deal with it? Then perhaps together we could release the fear. Groups that form to foster peace and understanding are trying to do just this. And so are we who meditate on a regular basis. Some Buddhists take the bodhisattva vow to be reborn again and again in this world until all beings are able to awaken together.

Developing an awareness of our vestigial fear enables us to hold it up to the light to see if it is necessary. We are developing the ability to be conscious in our thoughts, emotions and actions. But consciousness can only show us the truth. Compassion enables us to hold what we discover in a way that is beneficial to ourselves and all beings.

So we set the intention to cultivate compassion. How does spaciousness come into play with compassion? A sense of spaciousness creates room for compassion to arise within us. Compassion is a spacious generosity of being, beyond the tightness of unfounded fears and a false sense of separation.

Compassion helps us to release what is held so tight within us. A number of years ago I had an insight on a retreat and I still have it pinned to my bulletin board. It says: ‘I have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, nothing to defend and nothing to prove.’ What a breakthrough that was for me! It was like discovering the big tight knot in the core of my being – that vestigial fear, that fortress of isolation – and being able to loosen the knot a bit, to liberate myself, if only momentarily. These insights come and awaken something within us, something that once seen may begin to dissolve in the light of awareness.

Now if this statement that I have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, nothing to defend and nothing to prove sounds misguided, it’s because in a finite sense, in a world of separation and isolation, of course I could lose loved ones, material wealth, health and life; and therefore I have plenty to lose, fear and defend!

But as we discussed last week Spacious View sees the oneness of all that is. This is the great inner shift of awareness, an expansive perspective from which we see the energy waves rising and falling and the rhythm of life pulsing, and all the experiences that arise out of causes and conditions — all the pleasure and pain possible in this life — as vibrant threads in the fabric of being. And when we experience pain, if we have access to this Spacious View and this sense of compassionate awareness, then we feel sustained in a way that would not have seemed possible.

This is not to discount the emotions we experience. Grief at the loss of a loved one is still grief. But when grief is freed to be itself, alive in the moment, experienced as it is, without being blindly compounded by a sense of isolation, vestigial fear, physical tension that hangs on to all the dregs of past associative pain and all the images of a future filled with this same intensity of grief; when we are able to sense in to the spacious energy of life itself, without needing to make sense of it, without needing to justify it, without needing to make up stories around it in order to gain some sense of control, then we can rest in compassionate spaciousness and hold ourselves with tenderness.

Out of this restful spaciousness, we can bring kindness and joy into the world, providing ourselves and others with a sense of connection and well being. Spaciousness allows us to see that our way is not the only way, or that someone else’s way does not have to be our way, and that these seeming differences are just a place to hang our fears left over from the Stone Age. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to let them go! We are nostalgic for the saber tooth tiger! But spaciousness allows us to live from our deep sense of connection, a sense that cultivates compassion for ourselves and all beings.

As with most aspects of our practice, one feeds the other. So we can arrive at Spacious View through the practice of compassion. Setting our intention to be compassionate and to send metta to ourselves and to others as part of our practice, develops a way of experiencing the world that fosters our ability to sense the oneness.

So that is Spacious Intention!

Eightfold Path: Spacious* View

* In this exploration of the Eightfold Path, we are seeing how the use of the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or ‘wise’ affects our understanding. Please see the previous post ‘Spacious Eightfold Path’, January 13, 2011 for an explanation of why this seemed a worthy exploration.

In conversation we might say “In my view…” We build our sense of identity upon our view of things, the way we see the world, the beliefs we align with or rail against, and the people we see as like-minded allies or enemies.

“From my perspective…” is another term we might use. Again, we are choosing a particular vantage point from which to observe and react to the world around us. It’s useful to notice what vantage point we have chosen, since it shapes so much of how we participate in the world. Maybe we were born here in this perspective, born to a sense of belonging to these inherited beliefs, obligated to live and live up to them in order to honor or validate our history. Or perhaps we found this perch on our own, and feel the pride of our individual stake in the rich vein we have claimed. How we come to our perspective plays a role in how attached we are to it. Our ‘story’ is our identity. We rely on our story. It comforts us even if it is a terrible tale. It is our tale and we hold it dear, as we share it with others by word or deed.

Sometimes our story seems incomplete and we are in a state of seeking something or someone who can tell us who we are. We search for some kind of confirmation that will give us a clear vantage point, a deserved perch, a deed to this life we are living. ‘Who am I?’ we may ask with the same urgency as a baby bird clambering blindly in a nest cheeping for food.

How does this attachment to our identity and this quest for a defining story, affect our ability to access Spacious View? When we are aligned so rigidly with a viewpoint, or seeking distinguishing marks that align and separate us, then how do we access or value Spacious View, where there are no sides, no mine, no yours, no theirs — just an infinite field of interconnection and compassionate understanding?

Although it might seem as if we need to get rid of our attachment to our identity in order to access this Spacious View, actually the attempt to get rid of it, or anything, knocks us out of an ability to access spaciousness.

Spacious View is the noticing of perceptions we hold and allowing room to explore them with increasing compassion and clarity. In this case, it is the gift of presence that arises out of noticing the way we cling to our story. We can notice the fear that we are nothing without our beliefs, our thoughts, our personality, our behavioral quirks that distinguish us from others, and our ways of being that mark us as part of this tribe and not that one.

Through the practice of meditation we begin to see the patterns of our thoughts and emotions. In class we have meditated together, making ourselves available to this sense of spaciousness. And hopefully, each of you have been developing or continuing a practice of daily meditation that furthers this sense of spaciousness.

Arising out of the stillness and inner silence, our alignments, our attachments, our judgments, our beliefs – everything that we thought makes us who we are – become visible in the spacious field of awareness that is infinite and generous.

If you notice any sense of defeat when I say this, as you judge your own experience of meditation, know that Spacious View has room for your defeat and your judgment or any other thoughts or feelings that arise.

As we meditate we are giving ourselves the quiet solitude we crave as a natural part of our lives. This is not news. The scientific proof of the value of taking time in silence for ourselves is everywhere in the media, especially in health news, to the point that it is an accepted part of our culture. And yet habits die hard and remarkably few people give themselves the gift of these quiet moments on a regular basis.

By allowing for this quieting down to be a natural and regular part of our lives, insights arise. We see that we are not giving up ourselves and taking on a different perspective, but we can see where our views came from, how they became ingrained or calcified in our patterns of thinking. What we thought was something solid becomes softer and more airy. Through this inner exploration we may find in time that we do not have to defend our views, do not have to hold them so tight, and do not have to make someone else wrong or take sides in order to exist with joy in the world.

When we use the word ‘spacious’ instead of ‘right’ or ‘wise,’ it reminds us to look at the space between things instead of just focusing on the things themselves. On a universal level this is seeing the interconnectivity, the fluidity of being. On a personal level we notice how we are relating to the object in question. For example, we can look at the way we see ‘the world.’ We can listen to how we talk about the world and instead of just accepting everything we say as truth, we can see our thoughts, emotions, judgments and beliefs more clearly. We see that ‘the world’ is not some solid clearly definable thing but a ‘whirled’ collection of amorphous opinions that we may have accepted as truth without bothering to question them.

Spacious View is always supported by questions, by curiosity, by a compassionate exploration of the relationship between things, especially between us and the things that matter to us. So take for example, the way we see a person who is important to us in our lives. Instead of focusing our thoughts on the person as if they are solid, separate entity, we can focus on the space between us that is so filled with belief, thoughts, emotions, judgments and opinion. We can see the degree to which we react when they say something or do something that sets off particular patterns in our behavior. Instead of focusing on them and how they should be different, we focus on our thoughts about how they should be different. We notice the physical sensations associated with these thoughts, the emotions that arise with the thought. We see the inter-related nature of this little storm system that sets in, spawned by a behavior on the person’s part that perhaps irritates us.

Spacious View allows us to see that the world is not some stagnant place with a bunch of solid objects bouncing around banging into each other, but a rich web of interconnection. When we begin to notice the web, these interconnections become more alive, fresh and wholesome, rather than calcified and rigid.

No doubt at some time in your life you have felt held by someone else’s calcified view of you. You have felt the stranglehold of being seen as something solid and unchanging. Perhaps someone who has known you all your life or someone who only knows you in one role can’t make room in their view for all of who you are. So you know how chaffing and exhausting it can be to be viewed this way, how it brings up feelings of having to prove their view wrong and has the potential to set off a whole series of unskillful interactions. Noticing this, we shift gears from perceiving ourselves to be solid, separate, crashing and careening objects in space to seeing how we are more akin to microcosmic points on a macrocosmic web of infinite interconnectivity, able to see all the strings of thought, emotion and sensation that interplay along the pulsing vibrating threads of life. That is Spacious View.

As we discuss Spacious View we might notice that there is something familiar here, something that sounds perhaps a lot like what people say they experience when they experience the presence of God. They talk about having a sense of being deemed okay as they are, forgiven for their human imperfections. Accepting a higher power is a response to an awareness of there being a vantage point that is infinite and all-encompassing. How does God, for those who believe in God, seem to be able to hold all the mess without getting dirtied by it? God by nature is transcendent and intrinsically personal, infinite yet never distant.

Every earnest accounting of an experience of the presence of God suggests this spacious awareness, this spacious presence that arises when we quiet down and open our hearts to what is, whether we are in a place of worship, out in nature or on our meditation cushion.

‘Defending God’ is an oxymoron, because the minute we fall into ‘us against them’ and ‘our belief against their belief,’ we fall out of spaciousness, out of the intimate and infinite experience of God.

It is not surprising that people of all religions have found that meditation and Buddhist teachings enrich their experience of their own religion, regardless of what religion it is. Training in letting go of attachment to the story and simply being available for the spacious sense of ‘union with the divine’ is revitalizing for any spiritual life.

There is nothing we have to give up, nothing we have to turn against, and nothing we are destroying or denying when we simply sit and open to what is. We sit quietly with generous infinite nature and let it be what it is, let it go unnamed, because the naming and claiming creates a trap of attachment. We notice it all, even the desire to claim it. We relax into its vast compassionate embrace.


As a useful exercise during the week, take some time to focus on your relationship with either ‘the world’ as you perceive it or a particular person about whom you have a lot of emotional volatility or a situation in your life about which you have strong opinions and a sense of struggle. Notice, and perhaps write down, what happens when you shift from talking or thinking about them to noticing your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Question your assumptions and beliefs. Is this true? How do I know this is true? Give this exercise the time, space and compassion to allow all that arises to be acknowledged and honored. Notice any wanting to change your mind, or to prove your beliefs to be right, or to make yourself wrong, or to want to be ‘better.’ These too are just thoughts. Let them arise and let them go as part of your experience.

This is a life-long exercise, so have patience and compassion.
Hold the experience in Spacious View.